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Danville Whiz-Kid known for winning National Spelling Bee, Math and Intel Science contests is headed to University of Cambridge

EvanODorney

For about a decade, journalists and editors at this newspaper have reported that Danville resident Evan O’Dorney was a scholar of extraordinary brilliance who appeared destined for greatness.

And this week, I received a news release from the University of Cambridge that confirms what people have said about him since he was a child — and even goes further — by calling him “a once-in-a-century talent.”

The former spelling bee, math and science competition champ has earned a prestigious Churchill Scholarship to attend the University of Cambridge for a year of Master’s study in pure mathematics. He will “solidify his foundations before pursuing a Ph.D. in arithmetic geometry,” according to the news release. “He looks forward to a career teaching and researching mathematics.”

We first reported about O’Dorney 10 years ago when he placed third in the Contra Costa County spelling bee as a 10-year-old third-grader, beating out more than 100 other top spellers who were significantly older. The following three years, O’Dorney aced the county bee and represented Contra Costa in the Scripps National Bee, which he won at age 13 in 2007.

At the time, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement: “Evan is a great example to all students that if you study hard, you can accomplish anything.”

O’Dorney met President George W. Bush and impressed the hosts on “Good Morning America” when he correctly spelled “radicchio” while juggling three balls. Also a pianist, O’Dorney was delighted when ABC-TV aired a prerecorded segment about him that featured a piano concerto he wrote.

A home-schooled whiz-kid who received math instruction through UC Berkeley, O’Dorney went onto win the American Mathematical Society’s “Who Wants to be a Mathematician?” competition at age 16 in 2010, after pointing out a mathematical error in a question he was asked.

The following year, at age 17, he won the Intel Science Talent Search, which included a $100,000 prize. For his project, O’Dorney solved a complex math problem involving the square root of numbers.

After this, he met President Barack Obama. He had chatted with Obama on the phone the previous year after winning the mathematician contest.

O’Dorney was also a four-time medalist in the International Math Olympiad.

“For four years now, Danville teenager Evan O’Dorney has amazed us,” an editorial in this newspaper said. “Simply put, the guy is brilliant. Seriously, he’s a genius.”

As he headed to Harvard, this newspaper wrote: “He clearly has a natural gift that he can use to make a very significant contribution to society. We congratulate him and wish him the best of luck.”

We didn’t hear anything else about him until we learned that his intellectual prowess is now recognized in the United Kingdom. The Cambridge news release, however, reveals that O’Dorney continued to earn accolades during his undergraduate studies.

He expanded his Intel Science project for publication, completed two National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates, and won several Harvard academic prizes, as well as the Putnam Mathematic Competition three years in a row. He now grades the US Math Olympiad and trains young mathematicians for it.

O’Dorney also composes and performs music, and is part of a choir specializing in Renaissance music.

Churchill Scholarships go to those who have “a capacity to contribute to the advancement of knowledge in the sciences, engineering or mathematics by pursuing original, creative work at an advanced level … ” according to the website. A professor who taught a graduate-level class O’Dorney took as a Harvard freshman said, “He was by far the best student in the class, but even saying that doesn’t do him justice; the fact is, at many turns it was clear he knew the material better than I did.”

Others said: “ … A once-in-a-century talent,” and, “I think that Evan is going to be a mathematical leader in his generation.”

He’s on his way.

Posted on Monday, February 23rd, 2015
Under: Danville, Education | 3 Comments »

West Contra Costa: Nystrom Elementary teachers air frustrations with principal

Several teachers at Nystrom Elementary in Richmond are hoping the district will act quickly to resolve a Uniform Complaint and 10 grievances they have filed related to their dissatisfaction with Principal LaDonna Williams.

Teachers Jocelyn Rohan, Kristiana Schmidt, Jacqueline Tank, Abbie Schultz and Mary Flanagan spoke to the board Wednesday night, sharing concerns about safety, responsiveness, respect, support and student services.

“We are currently in discussions with the district regarding many grievances we have against our principal,” Rohan said. “We’re hoping that the board will help expedite and prioritize our concerns.”

Rohan said Williams failed to proactively plan for emergencies. Broken walkie-talkies make it difficult to evacuate the school during fire drills, she said.

When staff has asked to order first-aid kits and emergency backpacks, Rohan said they have been told, “We can’t get that” or “We won’t get that.”

Standing side by side, the other teachers followed Rohan’s lead.

“This is a very difficult issue for us to talk about,” Schmidt said, “which is why we’re all here together standing in unity.”

She said their remarks were not a personal attack on Williams, but she may not be a good fit for the school. Schmidt said teachers feel unheard, and complained that $50,000 was not spent from the school’s budget last year, even though teachers have expressed many needs.

This year, she said, the school received a fairly large donation to pay for three kindergarten aides. Although the jobs were posted in September, she said applicants waited for months and that two of the positions were only recently filled, while one position is still vacant.

Schmidt also said teachers feel their judgment is undermined because they are forced to assess all students using a single assessment, even though they know their students best and know that they learn and test differently. Because of this, Schmidt said teachers would prefer to be able to assess their students using multiple testing methods.

Based on the one single test allowed, Schmidt said some students are placed in learning groups that don’t accurately reflect their academic levels, in part because some of them don’t speak English fluently.

Tank said she has felt personally attacked and affronted by the principal on multiple occasions. She said she was originally hired to teach third grade at Stege Elementary and didn’t learn she would actually be teaching at Nystrom until someone from the school called her and asked when she would pick up her keys.

She said she often has more than 40 children in her classroom, accommodating students from other classes where substitute teachers don’t show up. She said she does not feel safe, supported or respected.

She said the principal communicates negative messages by leaving notes instead of speaking to her in person.

“This is not a professional form of communication,” she said. “It has put a huge stress on my teaching as well as on the education of our students. No one can work or learn in an environment such as Nystrom.”

Schultz said she was a little too exhausted to add much, but was there to give moral support to her colleagues.

Flanagan said the teachers care deeply about their students, but that 19 out of 24 who were there three years ago when Williams came to the school have left, leaving only five from the original staff.

She cited lack of discipline as “a huge issue,” saying students leave class and roam around the campus without supervision. Flanagan also said many students are not tested for disabilities when teachers request such tests, preventing them from potentially receiving needed services for years. In addition, Flanagan said teachers must buy school supplies for their classes because the principal delayed ordering some until December.

The board did not respond during the meeting, but Trustee Val Cuevas said Friday that without taking sides, the comments she heard lead her to believe there’s something wrong at Nystrom.

“I think that’s evidence that something warrants our attention,” she said, “when five teachers come and are shaking in their boots to tell us minimally what their experience is.”

How do you think the district should resolve these complaints?

Posted on Saturday, February 14th, 2015
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | 5 Comments »

How is the next generation of musicians influencing jazz evolution?

LindsayDobbs

Max

joshuat

kanoapromo

Out of the 83 GRAMMY Award categories this year, only five are devoted specifically to jazz.

The the uniquely American music rich in improvisation and imbued with soul is largely overshadowed at the glitzy star-studded event by more mainstream music such as pop, rap, rock, rhythm and blues and even country.

But while many of today’s teens may load up their iPods with Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus tunes, there is also a new generation of jazz enthusiasts who are grooving to greats like trumpeter Miles Davis and bassist Ron Carter, while adding their own touches to the music and as they influence its evolution into the future.

Paul Contos, a music educator who directs the SFJAZZ and national Next Generation jazz orchestras, said many of the same musicians who go to GRAMMY Camp are also accepted into the Next Generation group.

“We know the majority of kids are into rap and stuff like that, but these kids are definitely into jazz,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of tours with these all-star groups and on the bus they’re listening to classic jazz recordings of all the greats, but they’re also coming up with the new stuff. And it’s an exciting process to see.”

Some Bay Area teens selected to participate in GRAMMY Camp this year had varying views about how to honor the history of jazz and keep it alive, while also making the music relevant to their generation.

For example, the two bass players selected for GRAMMY Camp — who are also both in the SFJAZZ orchestra — play very differently, in part due to their tastes, influences, experiences and personalities, Contos said. He described Kanoa Mendenhall, a Richmond resident who attends the NOVA Independent School in Novato, as “a wonderful person,” “precocious,” “quiet,” and “very mature.”

Mendenhall was selected as last year’s GRAMMY Combo bassist and is this year’s bass player for the GRAMMY Camp band. Contos described Max Schwartz, a Berkeley High student who is the GRAMMY Combo bassist this year, as “a treat.”

“He’s an energetic, focused, demonstrative young man,” Contos said. “He’s just got a great spirit.”

Mendenhall and Schwartz agreed that they come from different schools of bass.

“He comes more from a Ray Brown style and I come more from a Ron Carter style,” said Mendenhall, 17. “I pretty much accept all different areas of jazz, but I really like the old type of jazz as well. That’s what I’m really working on right now, just to get my foundation. I think it’s really important to learn all the masters because that’s where jazz came from and I think it’s better to focus on that rather than delving into today’s music.”

Mendenhall said she’s listening to “post-50s bee-boppish piano trios,” but not so much to Dixieland or swing big bands. Schwartz, who also plays bluegrass music, said most people his age are into more contemporary music.

“They’re more obsessed with modern music, with modern musicians, with everybody new,” he said. “So to me, it’s a dying breed of musicians who strive for authenticity.”

Schwartz said he tries to learn as much as he can from the masters who pioneered the music, but is most interested in what was “game-changing.”

Trombonist Lindsay Dobbs, 17, of San Mateo, said she wants to incorporate different kinds of music into jazz, such as R&B, funk and neo-soul, which she described as a gospel soul sound with a jazz influence. Dobbs said she likes neo-jazz from Los Angeles and contemporary jazz groups such as Snarky Puppy.

“I think contemporary jazz is really interesting because it’s so complex,” Dobbs said. “I think a lot of people would hear it and they wouldn’t know what to call it because it doesn’t sound like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.”

Jazz vocalist Joshua Tazman, 16, of San Francisco, said he’s a fan of “crossover jazz pop” music by artists such as Stevie Wonder. Tazman said he wants to help bring jazz to his generation by transforming it from what it has been in the past into something new.

“I feel like my contribution to jazz is going to be to move it forward into a new era,” Tazman said. “It’s clear that jazz is losing popularity, but I think it means we need to innovate.”

How do you think jazz will evolve?

Posted on Friday, February 6th, 2015
Under: Education, Jazz | 28 Comments »

What is the value of performing arts in society?

Just a little over a week after newly-sworn in Contra Costa County Superintendent Karen Sakata proudly performed with a Taiko drum group at her inauguration ceremony, the president of the county board of education has questioned the value of performing arts in society.

Board President Daniel Gomes angered a crowd of arts advocates at a board meeting earlier this week by suggesting that pursuing the idea of a countywide performing arts charter school might be “wasting money and wasting time — and we might be wasting lives by supporting this.”

This prompted Rob Seitelman, a local teacher and professional actor, to yell back: “That’s how I want to waste my life — by supporting the arts!”

In a long and rambling monologue, Gomes said it would be better to pursue a countywide charter focused on robotics or environmental science than performing arts.

“These are programs that are vital to our survival as a society,” he said. “It’s well and good that arts — and performing arts especially — are part of our society, but they’re not the vital part of our society.”

When the crowd erupted with gasps of disbelief, Gomes said those who disagreed with him could vote against him in the next election.

“But until then,” he said, “you should listen to what I have to say because I listened to what you have to say.”

Many people left after the board unanimously denied the proposed Contra Costa School of Performing Arts, based on staff findings that the petition did not meet state requirements for approval.

But Gomes’ comments set off a larger debate, causing some people to question his characterization of the arts as less important than science. In education, arts have suffered severe cuts and have been considered “extras” by some, in part because of the No Child Left Behind emphasis on math and English language arts, coupled with years of budget cuts.

As the economy has recovered and studies have shown the value of the arts in education, there has been a renaissance of arts in many schools. Even the Contra Costa County Office of Education emphasizes the value of arts alongside Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — known as STEM — by hosting a STEAM Colloquium that integrates the arts into STEM.

And earlier this year, representatives from the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence visited Meadow Homes Elementary in Concord to praise its integration of the arts into its curriculum. John Abodeely, deputy director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, said the arts are a vital part of a well-rounded education and are especially powerful in efforts to engage underperforming students.

“The arts are not something you provide to students when you’ve fixed all the other problems,” he said. “Just like music is not something that’s been a part of humanities after we’ve figured out all of our other problems. It’s been a part of our soul and heart forever. So, the arts are a critical element in reform strategies.”

Outside the county board meeting, performing arts teacher Jason Miller said he disagreed with Gomes.

“Arts education is essential to our society,” he said. “The sentiment expressed tonight (by Gomes) was alarming — the idea that arts education isn’t valuable or that arts students are wasting their lives.”

After my story about the meeting was published, retired arts teacher Suzanne Cerny called to express her dismay about Gomes’ comments.

“How did this guy get to be president (of the board)?” she asked. “Studies show how arts are important. This reminds me of people in power who demean the people whom they are supposed to be helping.”

I also spoke to Richard Asadoorian, a former Contra Costa County trustee who lost his seat in the November election, who said he didn’t believe the arts should be considered as secondary behind other subjects.

“So often, the arts have been cut in schools,” he said. “They’re usually the first to go, along with librarians and counselors.”

Do you think performing arts are vital to society?

Posted on Friday, January 23rd, 2015
Under: Contra Costa County Board of Education, Education | 56 Comments »

Mt. Diablo school board tonight to discuss linked learning, special ed identification, audit and early retirement notification incentive

The Mt. Diablo school board has agreed to meet at 7 p.m. Mondays instead of at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, starting tonight. Here is the agenda for tonight’s meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. in the district office board room at 1936 Carlotta Drive in Concord.

Highlights include the district’s participation in a regional career pathways consortium, revisions to identification and evaluation for special education, the 2013-14 audit and a $1,000 early retirement notice incentive.

“1.0 Call to Order
1.1 President Will Call the Meeting to Order at 6:00 p.m. Info
2.0 Public Comment
2.1 The public may address the Board concerning items that are scheduled for discussion during Closed Session only. These presentations are limited to three minutes each, or a total of thirty minutes for all speakers or the three minute limit may be shortened. Speakers are not allowed to yield their time. Info
3.0 Announcements

3.1 In Closed Session, the Board will consider the items listed on the Closed Session Agenda. Info
4.0 Closed Session Agenda
4.1 (Item #1) Expulsion of Student #04-15. Action
4.2 (Item #2) Admission of Student #A-15 into the Mt. Diablo Unified School District. Action
4.3 (Item #3) Discipline, Dismissal or Release of Public Employee Info/Action
4.4 (Item #4) Anticipated Litigation – Conference with Legal Counsel pursuant to Gov’t. Code Sec. 54956.9(b), Significant Exposure to Litigation: 2 cases Info/Action
5.0 Adjourn to Closed Session at 6:00 p.m.
5.1 Adjourn to Closed Session at 6:00 p.m. Action

6.0 Reconvene Open Session
6.1 Reconvene to Open Session at 7:00 p.m. Info
7.0 Preliminary Business
7.1 Pledge of Allegiance and Roll Call Info

8.0 Report Out Action Taken in Closed Session
8.1 (Item #1) Expulsion of Student #04-15. Action
8.2 (Item #2) Admission of Student #A-15 into the Mt. Diablo Unified School District. Action
8.3 (Item #3) Discipline, Dismissal or Release of Public Employee Info/Action
8.4 (Item #4) Anticipated Litigation – Conference with Legal Counsel pursuant to Gov’t. Code Sec. 54956.9(b), Significant Exposure to Litigation: 2 cases Info/Action

9.0 Recognitions and Resolutions

10.0 Board Member Reports
10.1 Board Member Reports Info

11.0 Superintendent’s Report
11.1 Superintendent’s Report Info

12.0 Reports/Information
13.0 Public Employee Appointment
13.1 PULLED BY STAFF: Appointment of Vice Principal, Adult School Action
13.2 Appointment of Manager, Grounds & Facilities Assessment Action

14.0 Consent Agenda Action
14.1 (Item #1) Items listed under Consent Agenda are considered routine and will be approved/adopted by a single motion. There will be no separate discussion of these items; however, any item may be removed from the consent agenda upon the request of any member of the Board and acted upon separately. Action
14.2 (Item #2) Recommended Action for Certificated Personnel Action
14.3 (Item #3) Request to Increase/Decrease Full Time Equivalent (FTE) for the 2014-2015 School Year Action
14.4 (Item #4) Recommended Action for Classified Personnel Action
14.5 (Item #5) Classified Personnel: Request to Increase/Decrease Full Time Equivalent (FTE) for the 2014/15 School Year. Action
14.6 (Item #6) Provisional Internship Permit (PIP) Request Action
14.7 (Item #7) Education Code 44256(b Board Authorization Action
14.8 (Item #8) Variable Term Waiver Resolution Action
14.9 (Item #9) Ygnacio Valley High School Marching Band & Jazz Ensemble New Orleans Performance Tour, February 4-9, 2015 Action
14.10 (Item #10) Sequoia Middle School’s Leadership Field Trip Action
14.11 (Item #11) Northgate’s Folsom Jazz Festival January 23-25, 2015 Action
14.12 (Item #12) Contract between University Corporation-Camp Sea Lab and Ayers Elementary Action
14.13 (Item #13) Contract between ENH-Loma Mar and Woodside Elementary Action
14.14 (Item #14) Clinical Affiliation Agreement-Nursing between California State University Dominguez Hills and Mt. Diablo Unified School District Action
14.15 (Item #15) Submission of Two Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) for Eleven Eligible Bay Point and Concord Mt. Diablo CARES After School Programs Action
14.16 (Item #16) Notice of Completion Lease/Leaseback #1635: Athletic Facility Improvements Project at Clayton Valley Charter High School Action
14.17 PULLED BY STAFF: (Item #17) Joint Use Agreement between Pleasant Hill Recreation and Mt. Diablo Unified School District regarding Pleasant Hill Middle School Tennis Courts Action
14.18 (Item #18) Minutes for the Board of Education Meeting held on December 10, 2014 Action

15.0 Consent Items Pulled for Discussion
16.0 Communications
16.1 District Organizations – At regular Board meetings, a single spokesperson of each recognized district organization may make a brief presentation following the Consent Agenda. Items are limited to those which are informational. Info

17.0 Public Comment
17.1 The public may address the Board regarding any item within the jurisdiction of the Board of Education of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District that is not on this agenda. These presentations are limited to three minutes each, or a total of thirty minutes for all speakers, or the three minute limit may be shortened. If there are multiple speakers on any one subject, the public comment period may be moved to the end of the meeting. Speakers are not allowed to yield their time. Info

18.0 Business/Action Item
18.1 Board of Education Committee Assignments for 2015 Action

18.2 MOU between MDUSD and Contra Costa County Office of Education for the Regional Diablo Gateway to Innovation California Career Pathways Trust grant. Action

18.3 Independent Services Contract with ConnectEd Action

18.4 AP US History Textbook Adoption Presentation Info

18.5 Psychology Textbook Adoption Presentation Info

18.6 Amended Contract With Bay Area Community Resource (BACR) Action

18.7 Revision to BP 6164.4 – Identification and Evaluation of Individuals for Special Education Action

18.8 Revision to AR 6159.4 – Behavioral Interventions for Special Education Students (Post-Hughes Bill) Action

18.9 Budget Development Calendar 2015-2016 Action

18.10 2013-2014 Audit Report Action

18.11 2014-15 Early Retirement Notification Incentive Action

18.12 Approval of Tentative Agreement between CSEA (Mt. Diablo 43) and MDUSD for 2014/15 Re-Opener (Benefits Action

18.13 Public Hearing for Resolution 14/15-30: Increase Statutory School Facility Fees Imposed on New Residential and Commercial/Industrial Construction Action

18.14 Resolution No. 14/15-30 Increasing the Statutory School Fees Imposed on New Residential and Commercial/Industrial Development Projects Action

18.15 Meeting Extension Action

18.16 Execution of Documents Action

19.0 Future Agenda Items
19.1 Future Agenda Items Info

20.0 Closed Session
20.1 Items not completed during the first Closed Session will be carried over to this Closed Session. Action

21.0 Reconvene Open Session
21.1 Reconvene Open Session and Report Out Info

22.0 Adjournment
22.1 Adjourn Meeting Action”

What items pique your interest?

Posted on Monday, January 12th, 2015
Under: Education, linked learning, Mt. Diablo school district | 135 Comments »

A New Day Dawns in County Superintendent’s Office, but drumbeat continues

Karen Sakata is sworn in as the Contra Costa County superintendent of schools outside of the Contra Costa County Office of Education

At her swearing-in ceremony earlier this week, Contra Costa County Schools Superintendent Karen Sakata was honored with an original poem written and presented by Kathy Moore, who is a curriculum and instruction coordinator in the San Ramon Valley school district and is also the city of San Ramon’s Poet Laureate.

The poem, which appears below, references the fact that Sakata has got many traits and talents, including prowess as a Taiko drummer. Former Superintendent Joseph Ovick was also a drummer, although he did not play Taiko drums.

“A new day dawns
A new era begins
This day, today
Built on a vision of kindness and civility
Passed from hand to hand, heart to heart
Past becomes future, a rhythmic drumbeat,
Carried on each heartbeat
Student by student by student

Today we hear the drumbeat
Of Respect
Of Integrity
Of Diversity
Of Teamwork
Of Ethical Leadership
Of Creativity and Innovation
Of Advocacy for all learners

The persistent advocacy of education that matters for one, for all
Passed from hand to hand, heart to heart,
Teacher to teacher, drummer to drummer, leader to leader
Here and now

Karen Sakata, your moment is our moment
From there to here, you’ve traveled well
Following your passion with strength and compassion
Listening loudly to each child in need
Lifting the spirit, spreading the word
Drumbeat by drumbeat, heartbeat by heartbeat,
Walking the true path and leading with love”

Here is a video clip of Moore reading her poem, followed by two video clips of Sakata’s performances with the Diablo Taiko group:

Poem: http://youtu.be/V98LBQD28os

Hachijo: http://youtu.be/uqLQcp9RoyQ?list=UUzNb8poV27WgVD3TDzblkZw

Raku: http://youtu.be/rxN19NZ-GiY?list=UUzNb8poV27WgVD3TDzblkZw

After she was sworn in, Sakata said the most important thing for her and her career and her life have been my relationships. Sakata said she and her husband and sons had an “incident” in December, on which she did not elaborate.

“It shook us up, but I think it made our priorities really important,” she said. “What I really learned from it is that it’s the relationships that make all the difference — everything that we do at work, everything that we do at home, everything that we do with one another. So, I’m so pleased to be here with all of my colleagues, my friends. I think friends and family make all the difference and make us more relevant and important.”

She proudly introduced her husband, sons and brother, referring to them as her “men in black” in the front row because they were all clad in dark clothing. Sakata also thanked Ovick for his support throughout her career.

“Joe’s been my friend and mentor for the last over 30 years,” she said. “He hired me when I was in my late 20s at Santa Clara County. I never thought at that time that we would be working together and that I would be in this position. And so, I owe most of it to you, Joe, and of course, everything to my family and my friends.”

Sakata said she was excited about her new role as superintendent.

“I know that what I want for students in Contra Costa is the same thing I always wanted for my boys,” she said. “I want kids to be successful, ready to work, to find something that they love to do and that will enhance their talents, to have choices in their lives, and to be — most importantly — good people and good citizens.”

However, Sakata acknowledged that some hurdles remain.

“I know that right now, there are some big challenges that we face in education with the state standards, new assessment, new funding model and new accountability for school districts,” she said. “But, I see this as an opportunity and I see this position as a way to promote the county office and the wonderful work that we do in programs and support and in oversight. Again, I want to thank all of you and I am very excited about my next four years as superintendent.”

What are your hopes for Contra Costa County students?

Posted on Wednesday, January 7th, 2015
Under: Education | No Comments »

A look back at some significant state and local education stories in 2014

Here’s a sampling of some significant education stories that appeared in this newspaper in 2014.

1. New school funding, curriculum and testing

- The California Board of Education adopted regulations to help districts implement the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula, which changed the ways schools were funded and required districts to create plans showing how they would spend money, especially for English language learners, low-income students and foster youth.

- Districts implemented new Common Core standards for education, focusing less on memorization and more on critical thinking.

- Students piloted new computer-based tests aimed at gauging how well they were learning with the new standards.

2. School child abuse cases

- The Brentwood school district agreed to pay $8 million to settle a lawsuit with the families of eight special needs children over its handling of a special-education teacher who was convicted of child abuse, yet allowed to remain in the classroom.

- An Antioch district teacher charged with abusing special-education students pleaded guilty to one felony count of child abuse and two misdemeanor charges.

n The Moraga school district agreed to pay $14 million to two women who sued over sex abuse by a former teacher, in what was believed to be the nation’s largest molestation settlement per student.

n Former Woodside Elementary teacher Joseph Martin was charged with 150 counts of child molestation involving 14 students. The District Attorney later dismissed 34 charges, a jury acquitted Martin of 21 more and failed to reach consensus on 95 charges. The District Attorney is retrying the former Mt. Diablo school district teacher on 24 felony molestation counts involving nine students.

3. Charter schools

n The Contra Costa County Board of Education approved an agreement paving the way for the Summit K2 Charter School to open in El Cerrito in the fall, after the West Contra Costa school board rejected the charter petition.

n The Antioch school district reached an agreement with Dozier-Libbey High teachers to keep the site under its authority, after a months-long campaign to convert the school into an independent charter. The Antioch school board and Contra Costa County Board of Education denied the charter petition and teachers dropped their appeal to the state Board of Education.

n Although the Contra Costa County Board of Education renewed the charter for Clayton Valley Charter High for five years, tensions built throughout the year between some staff members and the school’s governing board. An original petitioner for the school was fired, the board president resigned and a teacher board member was asked to resign, but refused. Teachers voted no confidence in Executive Director Dave Linzey and the board dismissed the school’s coordinator of technology after he was accused of breaching Linzey’s confidence.

n The West Contra Costa school board approved three charter petitions in December, after initially proposing to seeking a waiver from its responsibility to vote on charters, saying the independent schools negatively impact the district.

n The Knightsen school board rejected a charter proposed by ChartHouse Public Schools, which also seeks to operate a countywide Performing Arts charter.

4. West Contra Costa bond program

n Voters rejected a $270 million bond measure in June.

n The Securities and Exchange Commission subpoenaed the district, board president, county, and district financial advisers and consultants in an inquiry into the district’s bond financing. The school board approved hundreds of thousands in contracts for legal representation related to the SEC inquiry, along with representation related to separate questions from the FBI.

What do you think were the most significant education stories in 2014?

Posted on Friday, January 2nd, 2015
Under: Antioch school district, Brentwood school district, California Department of Education, Clayton Valley Charter High, Contra Costa County, Contra Costa County Board of Education, Education, Knightsen school district, Moraga school district, Mt. Diablo school district, West Contra Costa school district | 7 Comments »

Longtime education advocate Rep. George Miller bids farewell as Congressman

Rep. George Miller sent out his final message to the community as a Congressman earlier this week, marking the end of his four decades of service representing Martinez, Concord and surrounding areas. Since he has been a stalwart proponent of education issues, I am reprinting his message below, along with a few of my own impressions of his work on behalf of students throughout the country, as well as here in Contra Costa County.

“Dear Friend,

It is with mixed emotions that I write this final e-mail as a Member of Congress. At the end of this month, I will officially retire after serving 40 years in the House of Representatives.

As I said in January when I announced my plan to retire, I am proud of what I have accomplished and what I have fought for but I am also clear that it is time for me to pursue my passions and interests in new venues. And that is what I will do.

More than anything, however, I will be forever grateful to the constituents of Contra Costa and Solano counties who have been so supportive and engaged in the issues that we have fought for together over the years to improve the lives of children and working families and to protect our environment and open spaces.

I will miss my work in the Congress, without a doubt. Despite the frustrations of a highly partisan institution, it is still a place where every now and then we can turn our values and our ideals into reality.

No issue is a better illustration of that than the passage of national health care legislation in 2010, an issue I fought for from the beginning to the end of my career and that is now improving the lives of millions of Americans and helping our economy.

I have considered it a privilege and an honor to serve you in Congress, whether it was to protect our precious fresh water resources, improve public schools for all kids and their teachers, increase the minimum wage, make our workplaces safer, or preserve our history and heritage through the expansion of national parks.

Thank you for your confidence in me, for your trust, and for your friendship over the years. If you live in the 11th district, I know that your new congressman, Member-elect Mark DeSaulnier, will be ready and able to assist you starting in 2015, just as my staff and I have done all these years.

Best wishes this holiday season and thank you for staying involved in the issues that matter most to you and to our country. Congress is at its best when our citizens are fully engaged.”

Miller has been fully engaged as a Congressman. When he returned home, he frequently visited schools and spoke about education at community gatherings.

I have appreciated his down-to-earth, no-nonsense communication style, tinged with quick wit. He’s approachable, doesn’t dodge questions and isn’t afraid to make bold statements that might not please all of his constituents.

In 2011, he expressed strong support for the controversial conversion of Clayton Valley High to a charter school, which the Mt. Diablo school district opposed.

“I believe that the proposal by the Clayton Valley Charter High School Steering Committee presents an important opportunity for the Mt. Diablo Unified School District to explore alternative educational forums and opportunities in your very diverse and dynamic district,” he wrote, adding that charters done right share feedback with districts that can be mutually beneficial.

“I believe that the Clayton Valley Charter High School Steering Committee proposal has the real potential to be one of the success stories of the public charter school efforts in California,” Miller wrote.

His endorsement gave the school powerful leverage when it sought and received permission from the Contra Costa County Board of Education to convert to independence.

Miller also defends No Child Left Behind, even though he says the law that aims to get every student in the country performing at grade is flawed and needs to be rewritten because of its harsh penalties for schools that fail to meet the strict federal goals.

What do think is Miller’s education legacy?

Posted on Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014
Under: Education | No Comments »

How is the shift in state funding is affecting your local schools?

Do you know how the state’s new school funding formula is making a difference in your child’s school?

During the past year, every school district in California was required to create a Local Control Accountability Plan, or LCAP, showing how it planned to spend new money allocated for low-income students, English language learners and foster youth, along with overall funding for all students. School districts were supposed to involve parents, students, staff and community members in creating their plans.

Now that the plans have been completed, students, parents, staff and community members are expected to hold their school districts accountable for following through on the promises made. But some plans could make it difficult for communities to track how well school districts are meeting their goals, according to a report released earlier this week by the Education Trust-West student advocacy group.

The report describes how districts developed their plans and offers suggestions for improvement as those plans are updated next year, said Carrie Hahnel, director of research and policy analysis for the group.

The organization analyzed 40 plans from some of the largest districts in California, including the Berkeley, East Side Union High, Mt. Diablo, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and West Contra Costa districts in the Bay Area. It also reviewed 60 more plans including Antioch’s in Contra Costa County and Alameda and Emery’s in Alameda County.

While some districts are taking bold steps to create new programs, the report found that others provided little specific information about how goals would be met and that most did not clearly show how supplemental funding aimed at disadvantaged students was being spent.

“While LCFF has sparked a remarkable level of public engagement,” she said, “community stakeholders have been left with LCAPs that offer frustratingly little insight into how LCFF will be used to increase or improve services for high-need students,” Hahnel said.

The group’s recommendations include:

- County offices of education, the state Department of Education and the newly formed California Collaborative for Education Excellence should offer better support and resources to districts to update and implement plans;

- The state should revise its reporting requirements to make it easier for the public to see how much funding earmarked for disadvantaged students is being spent, and should report how much supplemental funding each district is receiving;

- The state should require review of plans by county offices of education to be rigorous and consistent with each other, and should consider local and informal processes for community members to elevate concerns to the county level if they can’t be resolved at the district level.

In the future, the state Board of Education will create evaluation criteria to help communities gauge whether districts are meeting their goals. The report urges the state to make these criteria clear and to make data by which districts will be measured easily accessible to the public.

It also pointed out some “best practices” that could be implemented by others to improve their plans. These include creating an executive summary, along with user-friendly presentations without jargon and acronyms that no one but educators would understand.

“A year into this bold reform,” said Ryan Smith, the organization’s executive director, “now is the time to pause and ask ourselves if we have made decisions that will raise the achievement of our low-income students, English learners, and foster youth.”

Most district plans, along with samples of executive summaries from the Berkeley and San Jose districts, and explanatory materials from the San Francisco district, are available on the Education Trust-West website at http://lcapwatch.org.

Posted on Friday, December 19th, 2014
Under: Alameda County, Contra Costa County, Education | 68 Comments »

What is Charles Ramsey’s legacy in the West Contra Costa school district?

At former West Contra Costa school Board President Charles Ramsey’s last meeting Dec. 3, more than two dozen residents, union representatives, architects, lawyers and former and current elected officials praised his 21 years of service. Many highlighted Ramsey’s work to help pass six construction bond measures to fund the district’s $1.6 billion bond program, while others commended him for founding the Ivy League Connection, which has helped place students in top-notch universities around the country. One parent thanked Ramsey for his accomplishments, along with his “guts.”

However, a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the district’s bond financing program, along with a subpoena to Ramsey that has triggered $350,000 in legal fees approved by the board for his brother’s law firm, have raised questions from some residents who don’t believe the district should fund those costs. Now that the FBI is also asking questions related to the bond program, it may be too soon to determine Ramsey’s legacy.

But Ramsey’s staunch supporters didn’t let those developments dampen their enthusiastic accolades. Architect Fred Powell joked that he had a gift for Ramsey, but he didn’t want to be investigated by the SEC or FBI, so he wondered if it was OK to give it to him. Here are excerpts of some other comments:

Former teachers’ union President Diane Brown: “You have made an incredible difference … It wasn’t always easy, but it was a hell of a journey.”

Parent Romy Douglas: “The thing that I learned about Charles Ramsey is that he is involved in everything.”

Former Trustee Karen Fenton: “You started off as a pretty ‘bad boy,’ but you’ve evolved into a major force … I’ve sometimes compared you to Daddy Warbucks (for fundraising). Your standards for yourself and your family are really high and I hope everyone else realizes it. How else could we have gotten all this money out of the poor taxpayers of Contra Costa? You are the West County Steve Jobs … You didn’t just tell people to do things. If they weren’t moving fast enough or hard enough, you stepped in and did it yourself. And we followed you. So, your leadership is one of bullying, but also leading the charge.”

Former Richmond City Councilwoman Donna Powers: “This legacy that you have, it gives me goose bumps. You can drive all around West County and you can point out all of these facilities and you can go, ‘I did that. I got that done.’ … It’s so nice to have people who actually get elected and get off their butt and they do something.”

Peter Hanley, San Mateo Union High School District Trustee: “We all kind of learn that it’s not about waiting for the storms to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain. And I think Charles has learned to do that very well, so I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.”

Robert Studdiford, former bond oversight committee member: “I feel like you’re one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever met in my life. ”

Former Trustee Karen Pfeifer: “Without you, we wouldn’t have gotten out of bankruptcy. We wouldn’t have (Superintendent) Dr. Harter sitting up there. … You’re a cherished member of this district. I’m certain that the district will miss your hands-on participation.”

Architect Wally Gordon: “It’s just been an incredible ride to know that excellence happens everywhere in this world, even in places where people don’t expect it.”

Architect Douglas Davis: “You are truly the Robert Moses (New York City master builder) of the school district.”

Former Richmond City Councilman Jim Rogers: “He is the Energizer Bunny. He’s going: ‘Talk, talk, talk. Think think, think.’ Very bright. Very shrewd. Very committed. And, you know, a few rough edges, yeah. But the proof’s in the pudding. He’s gotten the job done.”

Even resident Mike Ali Kinney, who opposed Ramsey, found something to compliment: “You’re one of the best damned hell-raisers I know.”

What do you think is Ramsey’s legacy?

Posted on Friday, December 12th, 2014
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | 5 Comments »